In my dream scenario, I enjoy sunset dinners on the patio of Social Bar and Grill until summer fades to wind and rain … around December.
Enter reality: The rain will return soon enough as it always does, so you should get down to Social Bar and Grill’s sun-drenched outdoor patio, which has reached its full potential this summer with new chairs and tables inset with fire bowls. The backdrop is the Foss waterway and Tacoma visual icons: the Tacoma Dome, new LeMay-America’s Car Museum and the Museum of Glass next door. It’s the kind of romantic patio setting that earns 50 bonus date points. It’s also a swanky enough place to show off to visitors our yeah-this-is-why-we-live-here views.
The fledgling restaurant opened in August 2011 with barely enough time to attract sun worshipers and foodies before the cold weather sent diners indoors. Fall and winter saw slow periods for Social, but this summer, the owners said, Social picked up a following.
I can see why. The patio rates at the top with Chambers Bay Grill in University Place for South Sound al fresco dining: Both offer fetching outdoor dining spaces with slightly troubling interiors, though. At Chambers Bay Grill, the interior is flat with windows that do nothing with that majestic view. At Social, the trouble is the noise. It’s a lovely restaurant inside – with expansive windows, concrete floors and a sophisticated urban decor with a floor-to-ceiling view of the kitchen – but those hard surfaces and open kitchen bounce the din. I’ve spent too much time asking dining companions to repeat what they’ve said. It’s enough to make even a Gen Xer yell, “Get off my lawn!”
Beyond the loud surroundings, I find little to dislike about Social. On four visits through fall, winter and summer, service consistently proved solid, with competent servers who explained the menu in great detail – although they sort of have to, considering the austere menu descriptions so many new restaurants have taken to using. (I still can’t figure out how that became a dining trend.)
The menu is kissed by the Mediterranean, dips into island flavors, stops in European ports and flirts with South America – with rustic Northwest presentations and a comfortable price tag in the $10-$15 range (although there are a few splurge items). The menu is designed by executive chef and co-owner Rodel Borromeo, most recently the corporate executive chef of Matador, a Northwest chain of upscale Tex-Mex restaurants. The other two owners are Matador alum Philip Panagos, who previously managed Tacoma’s Matador, and Jason Bailey, who worked on the opening crew for five of Matador’s restaurants. These are people who know how to run a restaurant.
Like the sophisticated surroundings, the menu charts grown-up territory with spicy flavors sure to bother timid palates. I believe the kitchen has tamed the spice some since opening. Please note, the menu changes occasionally and seasonally, so dishes described here may no longer be offered or the price may be different.
Borromeo’s skill with seasonal flavors shows up as specials – like an almond-kissed apple-cucumber gazpacho ($2), which Borromeo thickened with yogurt instead of bread. A duck confit salad last fall was a spin on salade aux lardons – with frisée, a puckery vinaigrette and cubes of fried pork, pear wedges and crispy duck confit.
I delved into happy hour last winter and found seafood bargains: fried calamari ($4), poke ($7, ahi one visit, but it most recently is mahi mahi), clams inriesling ($6), and fried oysters ($4). All were well executed, save for a few gritty clams. (Happy hour prices have since changed for some dishes).
Small plates on two recent visits showed cocktail food meant to be paired with big-flavored drinks, such as the ginger-heavy dark and stormy ($8) and the pitcher of red sangria laden with boozy berries ($18). Calamari ($7.50), with fried capers and herbs, was expertly breaded and flanked by a smoky aioli. Sauteed prawns ($9) were the easy-peel kind in a shimmery pool that turned the bread golden-orange as we sopped up the boozy garlic-brandy broth. Rock fish tacos ($8) with zippy yogurt slaw and a habañero mango salsa can double as a starter or small entree.
From the substantials menu this summer, penne with braised duck and sausage ($14) tasted of cooler weather – an earthy mouthful of orange, cinnamon and fennel, and a stick-to-your-ribs heartiness. We dipped back into summer with Copper River sockeye ($19) cold smoked, then finished with a quick sear, served atop a creamy mushroom-pea risotto. A veg-friendly portabello burger ($10) on toasted brioche showcased the sublime possibilities of quinoa, served stuffed in a grilled mushroom with black beans, cilantro, jalapeño and red peppers. A grilled ribeye skewer ($17) was second choice only because the restaurant ran out of the grilled ribeye entree, but it proved perfect for sharing – medium-rare cubes of marbled steak threaded on a skewer with ’shrooms and peppers.A sweet finish at Social is just that. A flourless chocolate cake flirted with dark and bitter, but came drenched in a softly melting scoop of sweet vanilla ice cream. The banana bread pudding ($7) took the sweet down a notch – it was a merge of banana bread and tres leches cake that was creamy with an assertive banana flavor. Coconut caramel sauce gave it a finish as sunny as the patio.
Social Bar and GrillWhere: 1715 Dock St., TacomaHours: Serving lunch and dinner dailyInformation: 253-301-3835 or thesocialbarandgrill.comSpirits: Full bar with a lengthy specialty cocktail menu and an abbreviated wine list by the glass or bottle, with eleven reds and six whites – bottles equally split between California and Washington, with as many bottles from Argentina. Beer is split between domestics and imports with a few local taps.Age restriction: Diners younger than 21 are allowedParking: Limited. Find metered street parking in the daytime, a few parking garage spots are open, but only if they're marked as belonging to Social.Veg friendly: Several menu items skip the meat, notably the portabella quinoa burger.
Our pledge to readers: Sue Kidd dines anonymously and the News Tribune pays for all meals.